The history of the car business is replete with tales of achievers who clawed their way up from nearly nothing, penniless, to transform themselves through sheer willpower into human dynamos, industrial titans, architects of wealth and (literally) the stuff of dime novels. Imagine, however, undertaking that variety of personal transformation when you not only had to scramble over the everyday obstacles of poverty and ignorance, but on top of everything else, you couldn’t even speak the language.
Such was the challenge faced by the man who became officially known as William S. Knudsen, or more colloquially, whether affectionately or not, as simply Big Bill. At his core, he was no different from the millions of immigrants who flooded into the United States, grasping at a little bit of its dream and promise, as the 19th century melted into the 20th. Knudsen, however, had a more expansive vision. He became a giant in the industry, to excavate a much-used phrase, by serving as the ayatollah of mass production at both General Motors and at the Ford Motor Company. He would also wear stars on his shoulders as a leader of the United States’ armed forces, presiding over his industry’s hugely critical contribution to defeating totalitarianism during World War II. How many other halting steps down a gangplank have ended with so much accomplishment?
Like so many newcomers to this country, Knudsen adopted a name other than the one his parents had originally given him. He was born in Denmark in early 1879 and baptized as Signius Wilhelm Poul Knudsen. He emigrated in 1900, at age 21, from his native Copenhagen and landed like untold millions of others at Ellis Island. When he reached the U.S. mainland, Knudsen managed to find employment at a New Jersey shipyard. When that job ended, Knudsen–who had paid pennies to neighborhood youngsters in New Jersey to give him some instruction in rudimentary English–found work with the great Erie Railroad, repairing steam boilers at its locomotive shops in Salamanca, in southwestern New York. By then, Knudsen’s younger brother was also stateside, and had whittled out a sideline of importing Copenhagen-made bicycles for his own employer, John R. Keim Mills of Buffalo, New York. It wasn’t very far from Salamanca, so Knudsen decided to visit. When he did, Keim offered him a job, too.
A big part of the reason why was that Keim made steam engines, and Knudsen’s experience with the Erie made him an attractive prospect. The firm was one of hundreds across the American industrial belt that were also turning into subcontractors for the young auto industry. Just as one example, Keim hammered out one order of brake drums for the Olds Motor Works. That soon led to an order from Henry Ford for sheetmetal subassemblies such as fenders and fuel tanks.
Clearly, Ford liked the product, because he one day showed up and bought the entire Keim operation outright. By this time, the Model T was in production, and Ford moved rapidly to erect a regional assembly plant in Buffalo. Knudsen, who had exhibited clear and proven capabilities in production planning, was tapped by Ford himself to set up the Buffalo plant and get it into the business of turning out new cars. It was 1911, and Knudsen was only in his 30s, but he immediately proved to Ford that he could rapidly make sense of what even then were highly complicated issues of production and time management. To this day, Knudsen is believed to be the first person to propose spray-painting cars to save both money and time, as well as to ensure consistent quality.
Ford responded to his prodigious ability by bringing Knudsen west to his Dearborn stronghold in 1913. The Model T had already exploded in popularity like nothing else in the history of the still-young American auto industry, and Ford tasked Knudsen with ensuring that demand could be sated by setting up 27 regional assembly plants, something that had been beyond conception in the business up until that juncture. Part of that assignment included building 112 Eagle boats for the Navy in 1917, during World War I. Washington would remember Knudsen’s efficiency at getting it done.